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Hit the Pinterest homepage at Pinterest.com and it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. At first glance it looks like a highly-caffeinated editorial meeting for Us magazine. Images of cupcakes, beefcake, celebrities and inspirational sayings abound. And recipes. Lots of recipes. Call it food porn.

So why are brands as diverse as Whole Foods’ Whole Planet Found­a­tion and fashion forward shopping site Rue La La clamoring to get their boards on Pinterest?

Well, the numbers don’t lie. In a few short months Pinterest has climbed the ranks of the top-trafficked sites, joining Facebook, Amazon and Wikipedia, to become a search engine that rivals Google—and drawn over 20 million unique visitors in the US, who looked at 1.5 billion page views in one month. Stats like that get the attention of brands who want to reach customers, build loyalty, and foster engagement. But it’s Pinterest’s ability to drive sales by enabling a visitor to click through an image, and go directly to an e-commerce website, that has marketers stampeding.

SHOW DON’T SHOUTLisa Weser, senior director of brand communications at Anheuser-Busch, discovered Pinterest two years ago, “When you had to request an invitation to join,” she says. “I knew it was going to be big when I spent two hours on the site in a single visit.” Since that time, Weser has become a passionate advocate for the site. Pinterest users are an ideal brand demographic Weser explains. “They are overwhelmingly affluent, educated and female. They represent a desirable demographic when it comes to purchasing power and influence.”

To speak to their audience on Pinterest, brands must learn to lower the volume. “Audiences are exhausted from the non-stop chatter of Twitter and Facebook postings,” Weser believes. Pinterest represents a societal shift toward a preference for visual story­telling that enables brands to show without shouting.

It’s a more quiet medium Weser thinks, and it facilitates an experi­ence that’s akin to leisurely flipping through a magazine. In addi­tion to the enviable demographics Pinterest delivers, a recent report from Digital Trends indicates that the average time pinners spend on Pinterest is over an hour. Combine that with the organic pin and share mechanism built into Pinterest boards that connects consumers to brands (and their e-commerce sites) and it’s no wonder that, in Weser’s words, “Every brand wants to reach them.”

That includes mom-and-pop retail stores without huge e-com­merce platforms. Lori King, a social media consultant in Bend, Oregon, advises her brick-and-mortar clients that Pinterest can drive traffic to their shops with contests, in-store giveaways and creative discounting schemes. Her advice: “Maximize your exposure. Connect Pinterest boards to Twitter and Facebook. Tag other pinners you are following and create an ecosystem. Be descriptive in your postings and ensure your boards become a reference for all things related to your business. Use images in every post—better pictures equal more pins. The time and effort that goes into creating a board will pay off when people start using it as an environment for inspiration.”

RUE LA LA SHARES THE LOVERue La La is a member-based private sale site with over seven million style conscious fashion forward members. Associate creative director Rachel Solomon says, “Pinterest followers come to its boards to discover the elements of what it takes to live a life of style. Our brand takes a curated approach to what’s new, and what’s hot. We use Pinterest to share what we’re think­ing about at the moment, to show we are ahead of the curve.”

Solomon has one piece of advice for brands about to put up a Pinterest board: “Be authentic.” That means tapping into the essence of the brand and then, “Posting the things you genuinely like. Don’t put up things that are self-promotion. At Rue La La we create boards that are genuinely fun, genuinely joyful. Our mem­bers really appreciate the things that bring them value and joy.”

Rue La La drives traffic to its site with campaigns, contests and by strategically repinning boards that share its brand ethos and foster deeper community engagement. “For example, we may put up a blog post that says, ‘five Pinterest boards we like right now.’” Solomon says. “By linking out to other boards we engage the community. Pinning other boards becomes an extension of our brand values. By re-pinning boards we love, we make a statement about what our brand stands for.”

A recent sweepstakes called “Shoe La La”—in connection with a major show boutique of the same name—asked members to show off their shoes. “Members simply took pictures with their smartphones and hash tagged them with #shoelalashowusyourshoes,” Solomon explains. “Then we collected the shoe pictures and awarded a prize to the winner.” The responses created a visually appealing, crowd-sourced Pinterest board that leverages Rue La La’s brand strategy. According to Solomon, the Shoe La La board, “Made our members part of what we are doing on our site. Pinter­est is a way for us to connect with our members and demonstrate that we have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in fashion and can stay ahead of the trend.”

WHOLE PLANET FOUNDATION PINS A RECIPE FOR SUCCESSSeven years ago Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey heard a talk given by Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel-Prize winner who made microcredit a household name. Mackey’s response was to start Whole Planet Foundation to fund grassroots entrepreneurial efforts by the people where Whole Foods sources its products. Designed to help make small incremental steps out of poverty, Whole Planet Foundation has to date made loans of $32 million in 53 countries, financing 250,000 microcredit clients.

At first glance the Pin board at Whole Planet Foundation looks a lot like any other foodie’s board: plenty of recipes. But these are not just any recipes. According to Daniel Vidal, social media coor­dinator and digital marketer for Whole Planet Foundation, “As we travel the world visiting our partners and their microcredit clients we have the opportunity to enjoy great meals. So we ask our clients for recipes. Because we reach our Whole Foods customers through food, we are making an effort to pin more recipes.”

In addition to recipes, the Whole Planet Foundation board features projects, microcredit partners in the field, loan clients, videos, infographics, maps and inspirational posters. Vidal’s advice to brands that engage with Pinter­est is, in a word: Start. “It sounds obvious,” he says, “but you have to get on Pinterest, use it, figure out what works and be active. Get feedback from the community and adapt. To be successful, brands must provide content that’s interesting and engaging.”

“I WAS EXPECTING LOTS OF FOOD. INSTEAD I FOUND INSPIRATION.”Emily Caine, senior vice president for global public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, leads social media initiatives for Panera Bread. Caine says success on Pinterest comes to those who remember, “It’s not about you, it’s about what you stand for.” For Panera Bread, a publicly-traded company that operates over 1,500 bakery cafes in 41 states, Pinterest was an ideal vehicle to help them communicate their brand essence of “a long story told over dinner.” Accord­ing to Caine, Pinterest is “a natural extension for Panera because it allows us to engage in a conversation in a warm environment.”

With its brand focused on elevating the everyday, Panera launched a Pinterest campaign centered on the theme of “Making Today Better.” The contest allowed Panera to scale quickly on Pinterest. Panera fans were invited to put up their own boards and pin at least ten images that showcased just how they made their day better. Panera Pinners posted pictures of yoga, walking the dog, and their community volunteer projects. The results were, according to Caine, “tremendous.” Several individual boards had more than 3,500 followers. As one Panera customer wrote: “I was expecting lots of food, but instead I found inspiration.”

PINTEREST GETS DOWN TO BRASS TACKSIt’s clear from recent developments at Pinterest that the start-up is paying attention to the demands of brands. The launch of “secret” pin boards bodes well for the roll out of boards that can be used internally for editorial meetings, brand strategy and the creation of moodboards that design­ers can share with colleagues and clients. But the launch of business.pinterest.com makes Pinterest’s love affair with brands explicit. The site is a tutorial that explains how brands large and small can get on Pinterest and get it right the first time. Separate sections spotlight how to tell your brand story, connect with a community, drive traffic and specifi­cally how to make products discoverable.

NOSTALGIA, IT’S NOT WHAT IT USED TO BEModern Kiddo, a blog devoted to the generation that came of age in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, doesn’t look backward when it comes to build­ing its brand. Leslie Dotson Van Every, who runs Modern Kiddo with co-founder Alix Tyler, says, “For a visually focused web­site like Modern Kiddo, Pinterest is one of our most influential social media platforms. It’s like a great bullhorn we can use to push out our images. Images go up on Pinterest and traffic comes in.”

Modern Kiddo was an early adopter. At the Altitude Design Con­fer­ence in Salt Lake City, Van Every saw Pinterest and thought, “This is kind of cool,” then got an alpha account. Her “Aha! Moment” came when Modern Kiddo posted a tutorial on how to use vintage sheets for craft projects. “Our traffic nearly doubled,” Van Every notes. “More than half of the traffic that day came from Pinterest.”

Van Every, now an old timer on Pinterest, has some sage advice on how brands can make their postings more pinnable. “Make sure the first image on your blog post includes a title that explains what the pin is all about. For example, when your blog posting includes an image that proclaims ‘10 great projects worthy of cutting your vintage sheets,’ Van Every explains, “the pinned image functions as a calling card for that post.”

PINSTARS AT SALESFORCESalesforce took a long look at Pinterest at the beginning of 2012 and, despite the site’s focus on lifestyle themes, decided the B2B company could use it to carve out a strong, vibrant presence. Accord­ing to Maria Ignatova, blog managing editor at salesforce.com, the social media team at Salesforce dismissed posting typical B2B product screenshots, demos and white papers, and instead focused on the overlap between lifestyle and work life at Salesforce.

“Our Pinterest channel ended up showcasing our company culture, love for San Francisco, and reflection of the latest tech trends and gadgets. We wanted to show what it’s like to work at Salesforce,” Ignatova explains. Piggyback­ing off a recent employee photoshoot focused on why employees loved working at Salesforce, Ignatova and her team posted the results to Pinterest. In rapid succession, the team expanded the theme to include a board offering a behind-the-scenes look at Salesforce offices, then took it up a notch to include a lighthearted look at Salesforce fashionistas.

On a more serious note, Salesforce used Pinterest to post boards that supplemented its annual user and developer conference in San Francisco. Six boards highlight past events, upcoming speakers, as well as guides to local restaurants and hotels. The board ‘Things to do in SF’ is about as good as any travel agency’s presentation. You can tell locals built it, since it includes the advice to dress in layers.

BITE SIZED CHUNKS OF INFORMATION LOOK GOOD ENOUGH TO EATPinterest’s ability to inspire, connect networks of people, and drive traffic to branded e-commerce sites creates huge opportunities. Venture capital has opened its spigots. A recent round of funding raised $100 million, a valuation that assumes the company is worth $1.5 billion. And some individual power-pinners are being paid by brands to pin products.

Pinterest is making its impact felt in visual design. Already look-alike pin-based sites have proliferated. Pinterest’s dead simple user interface along with an elegant aesthetic of tiled images against a pure white background is transforming website design, as brands are emulating the company’s look and feel. Along the way, Pinterest is speeding up the pace at which we consume media. The MTV generation had an attention span that lasted three minutes. Twitter whittled that down to 140 characters. Today, Pinterest has rendered information literally in the blink of an eye. Instead of “blink and you’ll miss it,” Pinterest’s watchword might well be, “Blink and you’ll get it.” As social media becomes increasingly visual, we are now “Getting our sound bites with visuals,” Emily Caine of Fleishman-Hillard says. And as the many pictures of cupcakes on Pinterest attest, those sound bites look good enough to eat. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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